Sunday, February 14, 2016

When Student Preferences Don’t Align

“Students want degrees that lead to jobs.”

Well, sometimes.  The gap between that sentiment and actual student behavior explains part of why the model of higher education as a sort of human resources office for the economy always falls short.  Students aren’t widgets.  They have preferences of their own, and those preferences don’t always align with local employment markets.

I’ll make it concrete.

We have a Teacher Education program that feeds students into four-year programs to become teachers.  The local job market for teachers varies by specialty and level; if being a high school teacher is your goal, you’re far better off with a math, science, or Spanish specialization than with English or social studies.  But far more students want the English or social studies slots, and enroll accordingly.

It’s not entirely a function of ignorance.  It’s no secret that math and science teachers are rarer birds than English teachers.  But students want what they want.

We don’t draft students into majors.  They get to choose.  And sometimes they choose more saturated fields over less saturated ones.

In some cases, the preferences may be based on factors like pay.  Early childhood education is a fine and noble thing, but it pays terribly.  A student who likes to work with children, but wants to make an adult living, may shy away from that field.  Low pay leads to high turnover and therefore a decent number of openings, but the pay limits the appeal.

In others, though, it’s not about pay.  High school math and science teachers make just as much as English and social studies teachers do.  They often have more choices of where to work.  But far more students choose the more crowded fields.

In a way, that makes sense.  Why are the other fields more crowded in the first place?  Presumably, it’s because more people wanted them.  Students now are not terribly different from those a generation before; they’re just walking into a tougher market, in which many of the more popular jobs are taken.  

The challenge we face as a sort of personnel office, then, is complicated.  We can, and do, share occupational information with students.  We help them pick fields based on both their own preferences -- I’m a big fan of career counseling in the first semester, and even before enrollment -- and on where the opportunities are likely to be.  We mandate “gen ed” courses to help even the most specialized students pick up some of the “soft skills” that often make the difference between success and failure.  We offer “major fairs” to students, so they can see what’s available and where the various options lead.  We work with local employers to ensure that our curricula are relevant and up-to-date.  And we track placements, to provide a reality check.

But at the end of the day, students want what they want.  There are limits to what we can mandate.  We are market-takers more than we are market-makers, and the more we’re forced to rely on tuition for operating income, the more true that becomes.  To the extent that we want more autonomy from student preferences, we would need to return to a model in which tuition was a much smaller share of the budget.  

(It’s worth mentioning, too, that for many students, “transfer” degrees are workforce degrees.  That’s literally true in a field like teacher education, but it’s also true for students who want jobs that require bachelor’s degrees or higher.  For those students, a liberal-arts focus at this level is entirely compatible with a strong career focus.  This point often escapes notice in popular discussion, but it’s true.)

If the “students want jobs” story were entirely true, this would be a lot easier.  It just isn’t as simple as that.